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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Obtaining reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop

In the state of Washington, police officers are only legally allowed to initiate traffic stops when there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. In fact, even DUI checkpoints, which are legal in 38 states, are illegal in Washington. However, if an officer does have the requisite reasonable suspicion, he or she can stop a motorist for a short period of time in order to conduct a limited investigation.

The reasonable suspicion criteria can be met by several observations. For example, an officer may have reasonable suspicion to pull a motorist over if he or she observed a motorist making an illegal turn, drifting between lanes or frequently braking. Other observations include stopping in the middle of the road for no reason, nearly striking other vehicles or objects and erratic or extremely slow driving. Further, an officer can investigate a potential drunk driving case further if the motorist was originally stopped for something completely unrelated, like a broken tail light or expired registration.

Reasonable suspicion allows the officer to conduct a traffic stop. However, the officer must have probable cause before he or she can take a motorist into custody. Essentially, probable cause means that the officer has enough evidence to support the belief that the motorist committed a crime, such as the results of a breath test.

A driver who has been accused of drunk driving faces serious consequences, including a driver's license suspension even before the case goes to trial. However, if a criminal defense attorney finds that the arresting officer did not have reasonable suspicion for stopping the motorist in the first place, the charges could be thrown out. Otherwise, the attorney could seek a plea agreement that provides for alternative penalties such as community service and alcohol awareness classes.

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